Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Lincoln











LINCOLN                   B-                   
USA  (150 mi)  2012  ‘Scope  d:  Steven Spielberg      Official site

Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.

—Abraham Lincoln, 2nd Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865.  He was assassinated a month later, just days after the Appomattox terms of surrender were signed on April 9, and died April 15, 1865.    

Spielberg continues the American tradition of grandiose filmmaking, initially spun by the mythmaking of John Ford who himself made YOUNG MR. LINCOLN (1939), another fictionalized account of the life of Abraham Lincoln, using Henry Fonda in another near saintly role.  Though based in part by the historical accounts of biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin in her book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, adapted by Angels in America playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner, who also wrote Spielberg’s earlier film MUNICH (2005), Spielberg has a Cecil B. DeMille tendency to exaggerate Lincoln into larger than life, iconic status even while he’s alive, turning every frame of this film into mythological spectacle instead of history.  In this manner, much as he did with AMISTAD (1997), Spielberg takes liberties in fictionalizing history that he peddles as the truth, actually printing study guides to be used in schools alongside his films as an example of American history, where much like Fox News on the political right, Spielberg often blurs the lines between fact and fiction.  Spielberg actually purchased the film rights to the movie before the Team of Rivals book was even written, suggesting a pre-conceived notion of what he wanted to do, which is elevate Lincoln into heroic and saintly status.  While he uses actual biographical accounts to humanize the man, he continually displays skewed and preferential treatment to show Lincoln above the fray, always seen as a noble figure, while all around him his more self-interested minions are fighting to cover their own political hides, forever squabbling about minor details, losing sight of the big picture, where only Lincoln seems to hold together this vision of ending slavery.  Worried that the Emancipation Proclamation could legally be construed as only valid as a Presidential decree issued during wartime, once the war is over, he didn’t want to consider the possibility of the return of slavery, so he needed the 13th Amendment passed abolishing it once and for all.

In the film it’s all about slavery, about being on the right side of history, with barely a word about state’s rights or protectionism, which is at least part of the Civil War argument.  States wanted the right to preserve slavery, but also their own sovereignty, and much like today, they didn’t like the idea of a weak and often unpopular government interfering with their individual freedoms.  Lincoln took his decisive re-election in 1864 (losing only 3 states, Kentucky, Delaware, and New Jersey) as a referendum on slavery and a sign that the nation demanded immediate redress.  In typical movie fashion, even up until a few hours before the vote, Lincoln must overcome near impossible obstacles, as the votes are not there.  In noble fashion, he arranges private meetings with needed legislators and speaks with a kind of mystical reverence about making history, where people are often puzzled or a bit mystified by what he’s saying, as he’s never on the same plane as anyone else, always in a higher spiritual register, where his art of persuasion is miraculous, as little else explains the victory.  Behind the scenes, he has hired a trio of more conniving political operators who have skillfully attempted to offer promises of patronage as incentives to vote with Lincoln, but they run into a brick wall and some personal arm twisting from the President is invaluable in turning the tide.  Using a two pronged attack, Spielberg shows Lincoln’s personal life behind the scenes, often debating current strategy with David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Steward, whose job at the time seems more like today’s chief of staff, balanced against interactions with his family, including his stubbornly entrenched wife Mary (Sally Field), still mourning the loss of a child from illness a few years earlier, and struggling with recurrent migraine headaches.  Simultaneously, much of the action takes place on the floor of the House of Representatives during the January debate on the Amendment, an often contentious affair filled with snide remarks, personal backstabbing, and insults, an unflattering portrait of the messiness of democracy, where strangely out of chaos comes order.  What’s perhaps most exceptional about Lincoln, the man, is his generous and merciful tone expressed near the war’s end, especially the use of the phrase “with malice toward none,” where he honors those lost on both sides and spreads no further rancor or discord. 

Like other lavish Hollywood productions, this one $65 million dollars, the movie is star heavy, where familiar faces can be seen in relatively minor roles, but two stand out.  Ironically, it is British actor Daniel Day-Lewis that most perfectly expresses the 16th American President, literally inhabiting his folksy personality, the kind of guy that pays attention to minor details, often asking the opinion of people in ordinary walks of life, but also likes telling stories or dirty jokes.  The only time he raises his voice is to his wife who is at the same time screaming at him, as Lincoln could easily lose his focus by the multitude of distractions, not to mention the war dead, but he’s able to balance everything in a rational manner, somehow finding wisdom in the most tragic circumstances.  Outside of Lincoln, Tommy Lee Jones as Pennsylvania Republican Thaddeus Stevens, the powerful Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, literally steals the show, as his flowery oratory in describing the vile and vulgar quality of his loathsome Democratic opposition adds a touch of much needed humor, but also provides another tiresome supporter of the President’s views abolishing slavery.  You’d think since the bill passed with a 2/3 majority, there’d be plenty of support, but in Spielberg’s drama, only these two spend any time actually making the case, usually shaming others in the room who are not so convinced.  While the mechanical aspects of the film are well constructed, it does feel like Oscar bait, and its hammy overreach could win a slew of awards, even Best Picture, as in the year of Obama’s re-election, Spielberg may draw historic parallels, even if others don’t, as Hollywood adores this kind of excess of patriotic Americana on display, utilizing a jingoistic quality of filmmaking reminiscent of James Cagney as George M. Cohan in YANKEE DOODLE DANDY (1942).  As he did in There Will Be Blood (2007), Daniel Day-Lewis provides a performance for the ages, but the rest of the movie never rises to his level, always bogged down by black and white, good and evil stereotypes of the ugly opposition, a venomous group of Northerners who hate the idea of freed slaves actually having the same rights as them, thinking this is inhuman and against God, where really, their impact only detracts from the overall complexity of the drama, as too much attention is paid to the virulent hostility of opposing views, and barely any to actually building consensus.  Given the balance of time on the argument onscreen, it’s astonishing the Amendment passed, as in Spielberg’s version, it’s something of a miracle.  Such is the presentation of history in Hollywood movies, as it’s always presented with the most melodramatic flourish.  At some point, particularly when addressing historical portraits, American viewers need to be able to get past the theater of manipulation and learn to demand a more objective, less patronizing approach. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Life of Pi – 3D












LIFE OF PI – 3D         B-                   
USA  (127 mi)  2012  d:  Ang Lee

Much like Cloud Atlas (2012), this is another example of Hollywood excess, as these guys love to throw their money around, this time somewhere in the neighborhood of $70 million dollars, which is considered a bargain for a hi-tech, special effects film.  To give you an example of the unstable nature of the business, not the least of which is financial, initially the production team targeted director M. Night Shyamalan in 2003, who shares Indian roots with the film, but he chose another film, LADY IN THE WATER (2006), leading to the choice in 2005 of Alfonso Cuarón who also chose another project, CHILDREN OF MEN (2006), then later in 2005 the pick was Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who began writing and adapting the screenplay, and even started shooting in India before abandoning the project.  So Ang Lee, hired shortly afterwards, is actually the 4th director chosen to make this film.  In other major changes, Tobey Maguire was originally hired to play the reporter, but Ang Lee chose not to use a recognizable face and deleted all his scenes, reshooting with a different actor.  Such is the nature of show business.  The film is largely a child’s fantasy adventure tale written for the screen by David Magee, the screenwriter of FINDING NEVERLAND (2004), an overly dour look at J.M. Barrie, the writer of Peter Pan, this time adapting the 2001 Booker Prize-winning bestselling novel by Yann Martel, an interesting literary prize awarded for the best full-length work of fiction from the former British Commonwealth, in this case India.  Shot in 3D, and while many are raving about its use here, including Roger Ebert  Ang Lee: Of water and Pi - Roger Ebert - Chicago Sun-Times calling it “the best use of 3D I've ever seen,” there are really only a few scenes where the use is significant, with one being the opening credit sequence, which is a montage of various animals joyously frolicking in the lush foliage of an Indian zoo, which has a playful ease about it, and is certainly a nice way to introduce animals living in harmony with both people and the natural world around them.  A good hour goes by after that where the 3D use is sporadic and not altogether significant.   

Set in 3 different time periods, beginning in the present, Irrfan Khan as a middle-aged man named Pi relates a personal story to a visiting journalist, Rafe Spall, which becomes the novel the film is based upon, explaining not only where he got his name, but also how he came to have faith in God.  Except for the finale, and other brief moments, the story is told entirely in flashback, one period at 12 and another at 16.  The youngest addresses Pi’s family, as his father owns and operates a zoo, but more significantly explores his spiritual interest in pursuing Hinduism, Islam, and Catholicism, eventually becoming a Hindu Catholic, which may as well be part of the Bahai faith, as he tends to accept a universality of religions.  While this spiritual initiation is supposed to come full circle by the end of the film, that’s not really how it plays out, as instead this is seen almost exclusively as a fantasy adventure story, where the religious affiliation is negated by the existentialist aspect of the journey.  For those inclined to see proof of God in the storytelling, as Pi apparently does, this is certainly not forced upon the viewer, as the overall drama is adventure based. When the adventure is over, the story peters out.  Pi’s family decides to move to Canada, bringing with them all the zoo animals which they intend to sell, but they are shipwrecked en route and Pi is separated from his family, the only eventual human survivor of the accident.  Inexplicably, Pi escapes with a zebra, an oranguatang, a hyena, and a Bengal tiger on a rescue raft, but by the end of the journey, it’s only a young boy and a tiger that survive.  Along the way, they encounter many adventures, most of which includes addressing the overriding fear of one another, as Pi literally has to construct an alternate life raft tied to the main raft that separates him from co-existing with a near starving carnivore.  The mad and ferocious rush of the shipwrecking storm eventually subsides to a tranquil calm, where the monotony of living through days after days on end slows the pace to a crawl, and each to their separate corners, so to speak.  

Some of the film’s most beautiful and transcendent moments occur during this peaceful interim, where the ocean turns translucent turquoise and the mind’e eye sees the entire cosmos reflected within, not only giant whales and exotic fish glowing in the dark, but also the faces of his family, the planets and the galaxy, where at least for one spectacular moment, 3D perfectly captures a poetic recreation of Buddhist enlightenment, a realization of nirvana.  While this is a moment when starvation alters the perception of reality, blurring the realms of existence, these are easily the most abstractly unique and unforgettable images of the film.  But mostly this is a Biblical Job endurance test for both human and animal alike, perhaps one and the same, where by the time the near-death experience envelops them, they are both reduced to skin and bones, the beast inside finally tamed, the savage fierceness of each literally sapped out of them, where all that’s left is praying for a miracle.  Ang Lee has always been a visually complex filmmaker, known for having a unique, chameleon-like quality of artistic metamorphosis, as the diversity and range of his work is literally stunning, and while he may have been searching for a novel use of 3D as a new cinematic language (as they all claim), where the experience of the film is as transforming as the book, unfortunately, except for a few priceless moments, much of this experience is a bit of a slow slog, especially the over-emphasis on verbal narration that can grow endless, actually undermining any visual effect, growing most tedious when the overly frustrated and crazed character starts calling out God, acting defiantly as if he’s ready to die.  While he may have been the sole human survivor, much of this is due to his reckless behavior at the time of the shipwreck, as he was already separated from the others by stupidly roaming the outer shipdecks in the middle of a storm, lucky he wasn’t blown away or washed overboard.  Despite creating an impressive CGI tiger, the Hollywood glossed, computer generated, artificial look of the screen tends to monopolize the viewer experience after awhile, where the ocean bears no resemblance to an ocean, and where a lack of dramatic engagement defines this adventure story, as it’s the human element that never rises above the material, especially a weak finale that undercuts everything that happened before. 

Sunday, November 25, 2012

My Life Without Me












MY LIFE WITHOUT ME       B+                 
Spain  Canada  (106 mi)  2003  d:  Isabel Coixet    Official website [United States]

You see things clearly now. You see all these borrowed lives, borrowed voices, Milli Vanilli everywhere. You look at all the things you can’t buy – now you don’t even want to buy – all the things that will still be here after you’re gone, when you’re dead. And then you realize that all the things in the bright window displays: all the models and catalogues, all the colors, all the special offers, all the Martha Stewart recipes, all the piles of greasy food, it’s just all there to try to keep us away from death, and it doesn’t work.                
—Ann (Sarah Polley)

This is a fragile, but intricately powerful and poetic film about dying, but one which insists upon losing the morbidity and self-pity, believing that doesn’t serve anyone’s best interests.  Relying upon a beautifully unsentimentalized performance from Sarah Polley, completely unglamorized, wearing little to no make up, this is a bittersweet and highly personalized journey of the last two months in a woman’s life.  Very similar to Gus van Sant’s Restless (van Sant) (2011), this is another film about terminal illness which has seriously divided audiences, where some actually have contempt for the film, calling the protagonist immature and utterly selfish for *not* telling her family or loved ones that she’s dying (a change made by the director from the original story), where their loathing for her personal choice about the way she wants to die undermines their appreciation for the film, where certainly part of this knee-jerk reaction is undoubtedly the fixed ideas that exist in our heads about approaching death, where many are as rigid and solemn as long-held religious views.  Instead, much like suicide, the argument goes, the inevitable finale leaves the family in a state of turmoil, unable to say goodbye or share their final thoughts before death.  If you want that film, where everyone does the responsible thing, watch Debra Winger in TERMS OF ENDEARMENT (1983), perhaps the ultimate weeper, a film nearly guaranteed to make you cry.  Not taking anything away from that movie, this is simply not that film.  Adapted by the director from Florida-born author Nanci Kincaid's short story Pretending the Bed is a Raft, where the prevailing theme might best be expressed by a mother as she writes to her daughter, “Women always know more about the facts of life because most of the facts happen to women.”  Though the overriding theme is death, what’s equally significant is coming to terms with one’s mortality, where the singlemost driving force of the film is refusing to live a single last breath without love.           

In a story that appears to have been written for Sarah Polley (who lost her own mother to cancer at age 11), she literally inhabits the role of Ann, a young twentysomething mother of two young girls (Jessica Amlee and Kenya Jo Kennedy) with a perpetually unemployed but extremely likeable high school sweetheart husband Don, Scott Speedman, who actually went to high school together in real life with Sarah Polley, ironically working the night shift as a janitor mopping the floors and cleaning the hallways of a university that symbolizes kids with a brighter future, with an unnamed and disgraced father in prison, while living in a cramped trailer in her harried mother’s (Deborah Harry) backyard just outside Vancouver.  Clouded in an everpresent palette of layers upon layers of grey, with a hovering mist of rain throughout, this is an unusual film filled with melancholy and sadness, but also small moments that are so perfectly etched into our imaginations with a kind of effortless naturalism, where Polley is onscreen for nearly every shot, filled with beauty and grace, where the storyline becomes synonymous with her interior frame of mind.  In this film, selflessness defines the woman, as she is literally viewed as collateral damage, the price paid for someone elses victory.  With little time to actually sleep, Ann is the kind of working woman we take for granted in our society because of the immense role they play in our lives, as they sacrifice all to take care of others, having little time for themselves, exhibiting a kind of maternal force that’s been providing for us since the dawn of time, all with a kind of noble silence, never asking for or taking credit.  It is this overriding and relentless sense of dedication to others that can become an unbearable weight, always having to do for others, continuing to do what’s expected.  When Ann realizes she has so little time left, her immediate response is to spare her family the unwelcome sight of death, where visits to the hospital with the inevitable ghastly horrors would be their final shared memories.  True to her nature, she prefers another way.    

While the film is set in poverty, where living in a trailer is a fact of life for this family, it is barely noticeable in this film and not referred to again, as there is no pulling on the heartstrings due to her lowly position, it's just a part of who Ann is.  When she writes out a list of 10 things to do before you die, in keeping with her character, her choices are surprisingly modest.  Filmed in subdued colors, there are moments of surprising simplicity and power, occasionally dipping into surreal thoughts, like a quick daydream, where all the shoppers in a supermarket suddenly break out into dance My Life Without Me (scene) - YouTube (1:05), a sequence completely improvised on the set, or Ann’s heartfelt decision to record birthday messages for both daughters for every year up until age 18.  Film critic Roger Ebert Chicago Sun-Times [Roger Ebert] found this choice particularly nauseating, claiming if he was one of those kids “I would burn the goddamn tapes” in anger at his mother’s “stupidity.”  This is a common view held by someone who never had children. Speaking as someone who actually raised two children that lost their mother at an early age, they would have killed for those tapes, or anything else that could help remind them of their mother, as they felt so guilty in forgetting her memory, like not remembering the sound of her voice.  In one of the best scenes of the film, she visits her imprisoned father (the uncredited Alfred Molina), where a children’s choir hauntingly sings “God Only Knows” The Langley School Project : God only knows (3:05) to the empty corridors, where his thoughts reverberate, “Some of us just can't live the kind of life that other people want us to live. No matter how hard you try, you just can't do it.”  Ann also meets and has an affair with a fellow alienated soul, Mark Ruffalo as Lee, a guy living in an empty apartment with no furniture, only piles of books, where he may as well be living in limbo. Their first and last kisses, with supremely inventive music used in between, couldn’t be more memorable, or any less romantic than Eastwood standing in the rain during THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY (1995).  Isabel Coixet is from Barcelona, adding a female sense of elegance that might otherwise have been lost, using a brilliant ensemble cast and one of the most perfectly chosen musical soundtracks that simply elevates this material into unforeseen heights.  Often using slo mo and fast motion changes of speed to reflect internalized thoughts, Polley’s intoxicating opening inner narration couldn’t be more poetically perfect "This is you..." First scene from " My life Without Me " - YouTube (1:31). 

Friday, November 23, 2012

Under Capricorn
















UNDER CAPRICORN         B-                     
Great Britain  (117 mi)  1949  d:  Alfred Hitchcock

I was literally intoxicated at the thought of the cameras and flashbulbs that would be directed at [Ingrid] Bergman and myself at the London airport. All of these externals seemed to be terribly important. I can only say now that I was being stupid and juvenile.
— Alfred Hitchcock in his interview with François Truffaut 

Something of a mixed bag for Hitchcock, UNDER CAPRICORN is a confounding picture, most of it shot in London and the English countryside, the last real costume drama Hitchcock ever filmed, without the signature thrill or suspense element, as no murders occur at all, but it’s a film that contains a familiar exploration of the power dynamics in relationships, in this case a marriage, and a movie which is at center a women’s melodrama, like BLACKMAIL (1929), REBECCA (1940), Suspicion (1941), NOTORIOUS (1946), and Marnie (1964).  Hitchcock planned to shoot this film before ROPE (1948), but delayed for a year due to the commitments of its movie star, Ingrid Bergman, who was at the time the most popular movie actress in America.  This film would never have been made without her, yet her infamous decision to leave Hollywood to have an affair with Roberto Rossellini in Italy certainly undermined the film’s chances of success at the box office, where it tanked, and the bank that financed it reclaimed the picture, where it remained unseen in a state of limbo for years.  Despite some very interesting aspects to the movie, where Hitchcock continues his experimental use of long takes that he began in ROPE, there’s also a glum and downbeat aspect to the story that may alienate many viewers, yet there’s also some tense underlying psychological gamesmanship going on that remains quite intriguing, in particular Hitchcock’s exploration of class differences, a key theme that runs throughout the film.  Taking place in the British colony of Australia in the 1830’s, a cruel period of history when the use of prison labor was rampant, as was the continued mistreatment of this lower working class, continually threatened to be sent back to prison, where the British aristocracy was at the time more concerned with the appearance of law and order, where the skewed narrowness of their vision is perceived as brutal and coercively criminal in its failure to recognize or administer any outward sense of justice.  Despite the privileged class distinction of education and wealth, and in some cases family nobility, this does not translate to wisdom or respect.  Instead, from the opening shot, what’s apparent is how aloof and indifferent the British government remains from ordinary Australian citizens, completely ignorant of their history or local customs.  The film takes place in this fog of ignorance which pervades over the land with a ghostly presence. 

The presumed hero of the film is Michael Wilding as Charles Adare, the privileged and effete cousin of the British Governor (Cecil Parker), who sets out to make a fortune in Australia with little more than a noble birthright.  By accident, he runs into one of the wealthy landowners at the bank, Joseph Cotton as Sam Flusky, where many of the most prosperous citizens are emancipated former convicts, immediately accepting an invitation to his mansion for dinner, defying the Governor in doing so, as he was warned against this former convict’s savagery.  The appearance of the home is given such an aura of artificiality that it’s almost dreamlike, where the viewer quickly understands that whatever this movie is about likely takes place inside, where there are several lit windows, and as Adare arrives, he pokes his head inside each one where a different melodrama is unfolding, where the lady of the house is too ill to attend and servants in the kitchen are actually being whipped by a housemaid.  In something of an amusing theme, every arriving male guest begs forgiveness for the sudden urgent business of their wives who unfortunately couldn’t attend, something Adare seems to take delight in hearing, as he’s getting a bit of the local custom straightaway.  The dinner is interrupted by the sudden appearance of the lady of the house, Ingrid Bergman as Lady Henrietta, who does a kind of sleepwalk routine where her disturbed mind obviously lies elsewhere, but inexplicably she and Adare were childhood friends in Ireland, something that seems to give her momentary pleasure before she disappears back upstairs to the bedroom.  Due to her extended mental lapse, the house is actually being run by the housemaid, Milly (Margaret Leighton), perhaps overly zealous in her position, as she has the ear of Sam, filling it with Iago-like gossip, where we eventually discover she’s secretly poisoning the lady of the house with alcohol and bad advice, all designed to dilute her power and drive her to madness, leaving Milly in charge.  Adare sizes up this dysfunctional balance of power and attempts to rehabilitate Henrietta to her rightful place running the house, but she’s continually undermined by Milly’s devious methods.   

While the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd were especially fond of this film, largely due to the technical expertise exhibited in advancing the narrative, so is Peter Bogdanovich, who actually claims it is one of the director’s best films, but they are in a minority view, as others find the film lacking in dramatic power, much ado about nothing, without any likeable characters, where Sam is overly defeated, morosely feeling he’s lost his wife forever, where Wilding in particular, supposedly Irish without an Irish accent, is singled out for his pompous arrogance in his contempt for the established British authority, a sign of his own unique privilege, but also his entitlement when it comes to Henrietta, believing he can have her all to himself if he can nurse her back to the living.  While it plays out like an old-fashioned chamber drama, the film has two things going for it.  One is Ingrid Bergman, where the atmosphere is rich with the overriding sense of dread that hangs over the head of Henrietta, where the ghastly mood resembles Bergman’s earlier performance in GASLIGHT (1944), where she’s helpless to circumstances beyond her control, a role she plays extremely well, especially as she’s being plied with alcohol and systematically poisoned, as she was in NOTORIOUS.  The other is the audacious style used by Hitchcock, especially in a dialogue heavy drama where there’s so little actual suspense, yet Jack Cardiff’s complex cinematography is quite simply stunning, often moving back and forth between floors with ease, where Hitchcock was forced to remove part of the set in the middle of the shot (something Ingrid Bergman found quite distressing), where the opening dinner sequence is over seven minutes long in a single take, circling the actors, sweeping across the room, landing at the feet of Bergman’s entrance coming down the stairs, lingering for a moment before she’s identified, immaculately dressed, looking ravishing before her mental distress is obvious, as she’s lost in thought, very much resembling Katherine Hepburn’s morphine addicted role in LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT (1962).  There’s an even longer nine minute shot of Bergman in an infamous confession sequence, where she reveals the secret backstory of the film, a highly emotional, gut-wrenching scene of unwavering love for her husband that Adare, of course, completely misunderstands, but it’s a devastating moment of extreme emotional clarity in an often muddled picture of conflicting interests.  Earlier in the film there’s an equally compelling shot of Sam confessing his personal failings to Adare, sadly describing what he believes is a hopelessly lost marriage, where Henrietta fills in the missing pieces.  The finale is too easily contrived and oddly enough is one of Hitchcock’s sunnier and more optimistic endings.    

Note – Hitchcock can be seen about five minutes into the movie in the town square during a military parade wearing a blue coat and a brown hat. Ten minutes later he is one of three men standing on the steps of Government House.  This film, along with Suspicion, are the only two films where Hitchcock makes two cameo appearances in a single film. 

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Bestiaire














BESTIAIRE           B               
Canada  France  (72 mi)  2012  d:  Denis Côté

This film is no fiction, obviously. However, if it were a documentary, there would be a subject. Also, to describe it as an “essay” would entail a polemic or partisan implication, corresponding to the proper literary term. Cinema has come to label this genre of proposition as “object.” I don’t know how to label it myself, and even better, if this film is difficult to subsume but poetic at the same time. I started out with a naive desire to explore certain energies and to observe the relations or maybe even the failed encounters between humans and animals. In the end, this film is about contemplation — and something else. Something indefinable, something more obscure which I hope to find out more about with the help of the audience.
—Denis Côté from the film’s press kit (press-bestiaire)

Midway between Plattsburgh, Vermont and the city of Montreal in Canada, a distance of 60 miles, lies Parc Safari (home - Parc Safari), an animal and amusement park founded in 1972, featuring both an African and Asian species of elephant, but none of those details matter in this visual essay, a wordless and minimalist work that refuses to explain anything, but instead simply observes without judgment, accumulating detail over time.  Similar to Le Quattro Volte (The Four Times) (2010), the camera wordlessly gazes upon a world largely unfamiliar to us, where at least part of the distinguishing attempt here is not to embellish or beautify what we see, or even allow preconceived knowledge or understandings to interfere with the director’s mission, which is to observe human behavior through the unpretentious eyes of animals, and vice versa, both seemingly on equal footing.  A key factor in making the movie is to allow the mind to remain completely unpresumptuous throughout, where an unquestioned reality seeps through unfiltered, where neither species has an unfair advantage.  Like the Cahiers du Cinéma magazine writers who became filmmakers during the 60’s French New Wave, Côté is himself a former film critic from Montreal.  A champion of small and unconventional films, he redefines the viewing experience by infusing his films with a certain objective detachment.  Opening in the dark with the sounds of pencil on a sketch canvas, we quickly see a handful of art students *studying* something that stands before them, each scrutinizing the subject, gazing intently, before they return to the canvas.  What they’re eyeing is an artificially preserved deer, an example of the kind of wildlife you might see in national park visitor centers, mysteriously bringing the stuffed animal to life on canvas, where one would never know if the original subject the artist is rendering was real or imaginary, as it takes on new life in the eyes of the artist. 

Unlike groundbreaking directors like Tarkovsky or Bresson, Côté is not looking to transform the art of cinema, but seems content to stake out his claim for something imprecise or undefined, as the director has radically argued his experimental film is not a documentary.  Railing against the popular success of warmly humanized animal documentaries like WINGED MIGRATION (2001) or MARCH OF THE PENGUINS (2005), which create lovable subjects in the eyes of humans, turning animals into a form of human entertainment, much like soft, cuddly puppies, the director instead uses long-held, static camera shots gazing at animals as they often stand there gazing back at us.  Other times the camera may find animals simply staring out into empty space.  In each instance, no action is visibly happening onscreen to capture the attention of the viewer, but one grows curious about the surroundings, which are anything but natural.  In what must be approaching feeding time, a lion in a cage compulsively bangs against the locked door, like one of Pavlov’s dogs, as if demanding that the door be opened bringing food, where the sound is heard even after the camera shifts elsewhere, but the film instead offers no explanation other than the sight of a lone zoo employee standing nearby ignoring the commotion.  Initially the outdoor shots feature animals in the snow, like a small group of horses assembled together against a corrugated tin building, some only partially in the frame, moving about until there is only one staring directly at the camera, using no accompanying music, only natural sounds, as seen here:  Bestiaire (Dir. Denis Côté) Trailer - YouTube (1:29).  Only with the addition of more animals, like a small group of buffalo, does the audience realize this is a large scale zoo, mixing indoor and outdoor shots, mostly animals alone, many of them caged, where by spring, off in the distance with the grass suddenly turning green, a herd of elk may be seen running freely. 

After a fade to black, the camera is suddenly in the cramped studio quarters of a group of working taxidermists, with stuffed animals scattered about, also pieces of animals hanging on the wall, like antlers or horns.  One man is meticulously reconstructing a duck, which is a painstakingly slow process, where initially the animal isn’t even recognizable.  It’s an odd comment on animals, suggesting a bizarre afterlife, but ultimately it seems to say more about humans than animals, as they have a need to preserve life after death, even in an artificial form.  Obviously, in the more open outdoor space, thought is given to separate the caged predator cats and tigers from the zebras or impalas that roam free, but there’s no aesthetically designed space.  Most of this resembles the disorganized look of a working farm, with rutted tire tracks everywhere, random objects stacked in piles, where off in the distance touring cars are seen driving through the grounds with the arrival of summer.  With nothing resembling a carefully designed structure suitable for animal interaction, where they can move about hopping onto something resembling their natural habitat, instead we see a lone gorilla sitting on a dilapidated wooden structure, immobile, gazing at nothing until a couple with children walks into the frame, where the two have an animated discussion, even a kiss, where the viewing attention turns to them instead.  Just as quickly, the presence of people completely disappears during a rainstorm, but zebras still delight in seemingly having the entire outdoor grounds all to themselves.  There are no commercial shots of the concession stands or the children’s games, amusement rides, or the miniature golf, anything that reveals the mundane nature of the actual business operations.  Instead it’s a more isolated, free associative and contemplative film, observing a lone giraffe standing up against another corrugated tin structure, or a solitary elephant walking through the vast landscape, a stark contrast to the prevailing view of elephants living in the harmony of tight-knit family groups, unfathomably dwarfed by the emptiness of the wide open spaces, somehow questioning the meaning of it all, much like the existential dilemma facing mankind.    

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

This Must Be the Place














THIS MUST BE THE PLACE             A-                   
Italy  France  Ireland  (118 mi)  2011  ‘Scope  d:  Paolo Sorrentino 

Home is where I want to be
Pick me up and turn me round
I feel numb - born with a weak heart
(So I) guess I must be having fun
The less we say about it the better
Make it up as we go along
Feet on the ground
Head in the sky
It's ok I know nothing's wrong . . nothing

Hi yo I got plenty of time
Hi yo you got light in your eyes
And you're standing here beside me
I love the passing of time
Never for money
Always for love
Cover up say goodnight . . . say goodnight

Home - is where I want to be
But I guess I'm already there
I come home she lifted up her wings
Guess that this must be the place
I can't tell one from the other
Did I find you, or you find me?
There was a time Before we were born
If someone asks, this where I'll be . . . where I'll be

Hi yo We drift in and out
Hi yo sing into my mouth
Out of all those kinds of people
You got a face with a view
I'm just an animal looking for a home
Share the same space for a minute or two
And you love me till my heart stops
Love me till I'm dead
Eyes that light up, eyes look through you
Cover up the blank spots
Hit me on the head
Ah ooh

This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody), by Talking Heads, 1983  Talking Heads - This must be the place (Naive ...  YouTube (5:20), live performance from Jonathan Demme’s STOP MAKING SENSE (1984)

From one of the most original visual stylists working today, this is a very clever take on the stranger in a strange land theme, starting with a mystifyingly weird portrait of the stranger himself, Sean Penn as Cheyenne, a reclusive Goth rock star, now 50, who hasn’t performed in 20 years, something of a cross between the Cure’s Robert Smith and the stunted mental development of Ozzie Osborne, where the character is pathologically shy, continually speaks in the quietest voice register, and is perhaps understood only by his adoring wife Jane, Frances McDormand, who loves him unconditionally.  Cheyenne never travels, apparently, anywhere outside of walking distance of his home, an immense private estate in Dublin, Ireland where he pretty much remains locked inside, occasionally venturing out for groceries or trips to the mall, where he often meets Mary (Eve Hewson, daughter of U2’s Bono), perhaps his best friend, another Goth teenager or young twentysomething who has a room down the street with her mother, Olwen Fouéré, while also living much of the time with Cheyenne.  Cheyenne’s visits with her mother remain clouded in mystery, as she claims she hasn’t heard from her son Tony in years, that he simply disappeared without a word, leaving her in a perpetual state of mourning, lost in a fog, continually staring out the window.  In something of a parallel universe, his brain perhaps addled by drug and alcohol abuse, Cheyenne’s perpetual isolation and sadness leaves him on a similar emotional plane, both equally disconnected from the rest of the world.  It’s easy to see how anyone still looking that outrageous, wild hair, white pancake facial make up, and red lipstick, always dressed morbidly in black, is continually pointed at and made fun of by people in straight society who find him odd or different, often making fun of him behind his back.  This is another psychological barrier of social unacceptability that he’s used to, as the world has been taken over by over-produced, over-hyped musical acts where talent is barely even necessary.          

Co-written by the director with Umberto Contarello, who also co-writes the latest Bertolucci film ME AND YOU (2012), this is the first English-language Sorrentino film, which initially feels like a parody of a burnt out rock star, living off the extravagance of his royalties, but turning into a Michael Jackson recluse, complete with a clearly visible personality disorder.  What truly makes all Sorrentino films unique is the brilliant cinematography of Luca Bigazzi, where his camerawork is simply exceptional, often mixing exaggeratedly stylish Brian De Palma style crane shots with another look more reminiscent of the oversaturated colors of Lynne Ramsay, where he’s actively engaged in developing every shot.  The entire tone of the film shifts when Cheyenne’s father in New York City dies, where we learn he hasn’t spoken to him in 30 years, remaining convinced his father never loved him.  At the funeral, we learn his father was a Holocaust survivor who was obsessed with tracking down the Nazi prison guard from Auschwitz still living in America.  While in New York, in perhaps the scene of the film, Cheyenne runs into David Byrne who performs the title track, This Must Be The Place (live from movie 2011) - YouTube (4:27), an odd but lyrically poetic comment on home, where in a quiet discussion between the two of them afterwards we learn Cheyenne quit performing when two depressed kids took his morbid lyrics too seriously and committed suicide, an example of art resembling life, based on a real life incident in 1985 in Reno by two brothers that happened to be avid fans of Judas Priest.  Tortured ever since, he is seen earlier in the film visiting the Irish gravesite of one of the boys.  Suddenly inspired, obviously taking him completely by surprise, Cheyenne decides to search for this elusive Nazi figure, turning this into a road movie of America, as seen from an often amusing European vantage point.  Rather than outwardly impressing the viewer, this may be the most subtle of all Sorrentino films and perhaps the most artistically inspired, as the subjects that he visits are cautiously approached, where there are close to half a dozen different cover versions of the title song, each conceptually different offering a unique expression of home. 
       
Weirdly elusive and oddly intoxicating, as channeled through Cheyenne this is certainly one of the more unusual ways to approach the subject of the Holocaust, where Cheyenne is fond of saying “Something's wrong here. I don't know exactly what it is, but something's wrong here.”  As he goes in search of the perpetrator’s family members, staying at cheap, rundown, roadside motels, calling his befuddled wife from pay phones along the road, where these visits with strangers are astonishingly tender, as the introverted Cheyenne is just as soft-spoken, but what he has to say is more direct and to the point, where in contrast to his gloomy outward expression, his gentle nature reveals an amazingly attentive listener, where he actually displays curious insight into his so-called subjects.  Peppered with original musical selections throughout, much of them shot using a music video style, most written by Will Oldham and David Byrne and performed by a band named The Pieces of Shit, Sorrentino creates a highly impressionistic Americanized landscape, occasionally adding the poetic lyricism of Arvo Pärt’s Intro - Gerry - Gus Van Sant - YouTube (5:21), initially heard here in an excerpt from Gus van Sant’s GERRY (2002) that beautifully parallels this film’s similar drive into the desert.  One of his visits is to the granddaughter of the Nazi war criminal, Rachel (Kerry Condon), who knows nothing of his Nazi past, whose somewhat shy son takes a peculiar fascination to Cheyenne, actually coercing him to play guitar while he enthusiastically sings (joyously off key) the title track as his mother proudly looks on, Sean Penn, Singing, movie, this must be the place ... YouTube (1:42).  Harry Dean Stanton has an amusing albeit brief cameo, additionally there is a skillful and poignant use of a probing inner narration from the journals of Cheyenne’s deceased father, but Sorrentino’s kinetically inspiring visualizations hold the key to the film, as it is in the desolate emptiness of a desert landscape encased in wintry snow that he finds his fugitive, a place that may as well be the end of the world.  Told with restraint, the audience is always backed into a different way of discovering each of these subjects, as Cheyenne is the least confrontational lead actor you could possibly imagine, suddenly transformed into Edward G. Robinson in the Nazi-hunter role chasing down war criminal Orson Welles in his film THE STRANGER (1946).  In preparation for this moment, Cheyenne actually walks into a gun shop and purchases a weapon, where the owner explains the psychological transformation that happens when you hold the right weapon in your hand, as it allows you to “kill with impunity.”  Thematically, this appears to parallel the monstrous Nazi mindset in exterminating the Jews, so perhaps not surprisingly, Cheyenne must seek an alternative path and rise above the frustratingly obsessive yet ineffective methods of his father in dealing with the past, finding his own revelatory road to redemption. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

Francine















FRANCINE                C                    
USA  Canada  (74 mi)  2012  d:  Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky     Official site

This is a horribly downbeat film evoking stark alienation along with many unpleasantries of rural poverty that some will find shocking in its portrait of tragedy and loss, also in its graphic depiction of animal cruelty, but retains a central focus through the idiosyncratic performance of Melissa Leo, from FROZEN RIVER (2008) and her Best Supporting Actress role in THE FIGHTER (2010), who is seen in the film’s opening being released from incarceration, which could be prison or a locked mental health facility, as the film never makes it clear, nor does it provide any backstory as to how she arrived there in the first place.  Instead the near wordless character study simply follows her routine after she returns home alone into an isolated, rural community, as if pointing a camera at someone helps make some sense out of their life.  This is the third film seen recently, by the way, featuring scenes with women naked in the shower, including Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz (2011) and Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet (2011), where one common element is a similar vision by female directors.  Not sure what to make of this trend other than to suggest these scenes reflect women at their most vulnerable where they have nothing to hide.  The collaborative husband and wife team of filmmakers Brian Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky have a history making documentary films, where both are co-writers and directors of this film, while Cassidy also works behind the camera as the cinematographer.  Shot in video, the camera offers a highly mobile presence, literally tracking the random daily occurrences, which includes her arrival home to a small house in upstate New York situated on a tranquil lake.  The remote calm feels like a surprise, as one could think of worse places to begin anew, but a glimpse of life at her job inside the local Petco store feels a bit hectic, even if some of the products are mysteriously weird, as if the quicker pace of having to interact with co-workers and customers is difficult, as Francine rarely utters a word or changes that sullen look on her face, feeling socially inept, eventually losing her job from sheer social awkwardness.  But she makes the rounds and hits the bars or goes to parties, usually drinking too much or having inappropriate sex, picking up stray animals en route, feeding them and taking comfort in their accessibility, as they become her only solace.  Over time her house is overrun with animals, as she becomes obsessed with animals at the expense of human interaction.   

Along the way we see a glum Francine wander around town, where a death metal band is playing in an open field to about a dozen listeners where she joins a group of others thrashing around, her head shaking to the frenzy of the music, a sort of kick out the jams moment.  We also see her at an AA meeting and at a local church service, but from the decrepit look at the inside of her home, completely overrun by her accumulated collection of strays, literally playing with each as if they were helpless babies, we realize life’s gotten the better of her, as she’s lost any sense of order or balance, sliding off the edge, mostly retreating into her squalid trailer trash existence.  This may catch some by surprise, as initially one may have missed the clues, but eventually the camera captures the numbness in her disaffected life, where only the animals provide meaning, as in her eyes they are so defenseless, constantly seen hugging and kissing them, but her rising animal count only increases the clutter and disarray inside her home, reflective of her mental state, where she’s incapable of realizing what’s happened even after she starts working as a veterinarian’s assistant, where some of the graphic images seen are deplorable, where the camera never shies away from staring death in the face, where the concept of harm, both to herself and to animals, rises to the surface.  The observational style remains too detached and the overall mood ambiguous, often meandering at times or even aimless, where the audience is kept at a distance without ever sensing the intimacy or immediacy of the moment.  Not sure this young director team has made the transition between documentary and fiction, as what’s missing is any element of human drama, creating a fictional character with literally no story construction, existing instead in a netherworld of mental torpor.  Even as she empathizes with the plight of animals, it’s clear she’s incapable of really managing her own dreary life, where the bleak austerity is all we’re given.  Given a spare and unsentimental gaze, it’s little more than a minimalist outline, a sad and empty portrait of mental alienation, not nearly the powerhouse work of Lodge Kerrigan’s more emotionally resonant KEANE (2004).          

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Suspicion















SUSPICION               B+                  
USA  (99 mi)  1941  d:  Alfred Hitchcock

Truffaut: “…you referred to Suspicion and said that the producers would have objected to Cary Grant being the killer.  If I understand correctly, you’d have preferred that he be the guilty one.”

Hitchcock:  “Well, I’m not too pleased with the way Suspicion ends.  I had something else in mind.”

One of the earlier Hitchcock films to explore the subject of hysteria, which, when mixed with murder, always adds a touch of lingering doubt where illusion and reality are often confused.  Hitchcock seems to relish these kinds of stories with perfectly innocent and ordinary people suddenly struck by the idea of murder lurking in their midst, where everything is not as it seems, drawing inferences as to the reasons why, where the tiniest hints or clues grow increasingly large, until eventually they are suffocating and gasping for air on mere ideas and suppositions.  Shot during the middle of his espionage phase, from THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934) until NOTORIOUS (1946), the director made a trio of romantic psychological thrillers about naïve and less than suspecting women falling for shady and darkly disturbing men with something to hide in REBECCA (1940), SUSPICION (1941), and Shadow of a Doubt (1943).  Like the latter film which opens with The Merry Widow Waltz, Hitchcock uses another waltz musical theme, initially heard with romantic inclinations at a huntsman’s ball, Johann Strauss, Jr. - Vienna Blood Waltz, Op. 354 ... YouTube (2:23), but later it becomes a trigger for suspected foulplay.  While the original novel Before the Fact, by Francis Iles, is much darker in tone, adapted by Samson Raphaelson, Hitchcock’s personal assistant Joan Harrison and his wife Alma Reville, much has been made of the studio’s insistence to alter the ending, substantially changing the outcome, offering a lighter and more hopeful world of optimistic possibilities instead of concluding with a corpse and the damning evidence of a murderous psychopath on the loose.  Hitchcock obviously preferred the latter, but this was his first time working with Cary Grant, already considered too popular a star and the biggest star Hitchcock had ever worked with at this point, so RKO studios insisted he be a hero instead of the villain, culminating with a substitute ending.  Later Grant and Hitchcock collaborated on NOTORIOUS (1946), TO CATCH A THIEF (1955), and NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959).         

Oddly, this was Hitchcock’s second Hollywood movie, yet for all practical purposes this is a British film made in Hollywood, where the actors, the setting, and the overall atmosphere are decidedly British.  Initially the tone is more of a screwball comedy, where Cary Grant as Johnnie seems to operate outside normal social boundaries, where right off the bat he’s a bit of a scam artist trying to use a 3rd class train ticket for a 1st class seat, where sitting across from him is Joan Fontaine as Lina, much more reserved and proper hiding behind her glasses, but she recognizes his picture in the social columns, as he’s apparently a handsome and eligible bachelor, usually with several girls on his arm.  When she runs into him again, seemingly no accident, as she’s the daughter of a wealthy general, he sweeps her off her feet in no time with his playful rakish charm, where despite her father’s warnings that he could be a fortune hunter, she decides to defy her family’s heeding in hopes of getting away from their restricting confinement.  Despite her overprotected and well-behaved demeanor, she’s smitten by his liberated and carefree manner, not to mention his looks, so after an enchanted evening of dancing at the Hunt Club Ball, they elope the next day, where Johnny assumes her wealthy family will cover the cost, as they honeymoon in extravagance, not to mention the luxurious home Johnnie has picked out for them to live.  Always on different wavelengths, Lina is shocked to discover Johnnie hasn’t a penny to his name, that he survives on borrowing from others, living life recklessly as a compulsive gambler, where he’ll throw his life savings on a whim at the track.  Even though Lina remains in denial for a good portion of the film, the audience quickly learns Johnnie’s a compulsive liar and a thief, an amoral man capable of doing just about anything to get what he wants, living behind a pack of lies, where his story often changes by the second.  For Lina, order and morality are so ingrained in her upbringing, she remains naïve to all of Johnny’s dastardly deeds, while the man seemingly hasn’t a care in the world.  Hitchcock leaves plenty of hints for the audience, however, never offering any proof, though it’s clear Johnny is something of a scoundrel and a cheat, and perhaps, as cleverly discovered in a Scrabble like board game, capable of “murder.”                

Like Shadow of a Doubt, this is a dark comedy that relishes its little wickedness, opening in near farce, but the mood of frivolity suddenly turns darker with the arrival of one of Johnnie’s friends, Nigel Bruce as Beaky, a kind of dim-witted but jovial fellow who knows the true colors of his friend, a side seldom seen by his new wife, who’s always the last to know, discovering Johnnie quit his job and embezzled funds, pawned family heirlooms, and spent the proceeds at the race track.  It’s never explained how they continue to live in this outrageously lavish country estate on no income coming in, but it’s certain Johnnie has no intention of working for a living.  When Lina’s father suddenly dies of a stroke, Johnnie’s the picture of disappointment at the reading of the will, discovering Daddy didn’t leave much, never trusting his marital intentions.  Instead he develops an incessant fascination with the local murder mystery writer, Auriol Lee, literally pumping her for ways to commit murder, hoping to discover the perfect untraceable poison, where a close up shot of the Cornish hen they’re eating suddenly looms ominously over the dinner proceedings.  When Johnnie has to step up and earn a living, he rudely berates his wife for interfering in his business when he and Beaky develop a little real estate scheme that seems doomed from the outset, eyeing an undeveloped oceanfront location called Tangmere-by-the-sea, which is actually shot near Carmel, south of San Francisco, supposedly financed by Beaky’s lifetime savings.  When Beaky suddenly turns up dead under mysterious circumstances, Lina begins to shudder with horror and disbelief that her husband may have murdered him, thinking she could be next, literally fearing for her life, especially when he shows up without a word after going missing for awhile.  Like Marnie (1964), another film about a pathological liar, Hitchcock resorts to German Expressionist imagery, where Johnnie is projected as a shadow on the wall, while Lina is seen hovering in fear in the living room, where shadowed outlines on the floor reveal what appears to be a web or a cage, where she’s helplessly locked inside.  One of the more memorable images is a ghoulish image of Johnnie stepping out of the dark carrying a glass of milk up the stairs, where Hitchcock has the milk illuminated with a light bulb in the glass, drawing attention to the poisonous possibilities.  The finale takes place in a frantic car scene with the cliffs lurking below, where certain death or doom feels all but certain.  Joan Fontaine won the Best Actress Academy Award for her performance of a woman losing her psychological bearings, the only such Oscar for a performance in a Hitchcock film.  Not for the fainthearted, the clever and lighthearted humor of the opening turns into a threatening and suffocating atmosphere of menacing dread and foreboding, perhaps Hitchcock's definitive comment on marriage.